Otak-otak – spicy Malaysian fish patties

This is a cold-weather otak-otak. In Malaysia, you’d be wrapping your fish mousse in banana leaves and grilling the filled leaves over a charcoal fire outdoors. In England in January, you’re going to be wrapping it in home-made banana leaves (tin foil and greaseproof paper), and, unless you’re the masochistic sort who doesn’t mind hauling the barbecue out in the sub-zero night, dry-frying in a pan on the hob.

This recipe still shouts loudly that it’s from Malaysia; it’s packed with zingy spice. If you’re somewhere where they are available, use the banana leaves and add some galangal and candlenuts to the sambal (the paste at the start of the recipe), and some slivered Kaffir lime leaves to the fish mixture – even if you’re not, I think you’ll find this surprisingly authentic. You’ll need:

Sambal
1 ½ teaspoons blachan (fermented shrimp paste – available in Chinese supermarkets and from Seasoned Pioneers)
5 sun dried chilis
4 cloves garlic
2 knobs ginger
Zest of 2 limes
1 stem lemongrass
5 shallots
2 teaspoons turmeric

Fish mixture
6 mackerel, skin and bones removed
1/2 wine glass water
1 tin coconut milk
1 teaspoon sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, roasted
Salt

Put all the sambal ingredients in a blender, and whizz until they’re a paste. Set them to one side. This will pong – blachan is very strong, and when it’s raw has a distinct and non-charming smell of dead things. Suspend your disbelief and keep cooking – it starts to smell better very soon. Remove your finished sambal to a bowl.

This sambal can form the base to a lot of Malaysian recipes – it’s strong, and it’s delicious. You can vary the amount of chili that you use depending on taste (I used a lot here – these are chilis that I bought in Malaysia last year, and they’re not particularly strong). As you become more used to the flavour, you may find yourself wanting to use more blachan. It is very strong – I keep ours in the garage, in case I offend the in-laws.

Remove the skin and the spiky backbone from the mackerel. In Malaysia, this would be a threadfin – Sainsbury’s don’t carry threadfin, so you’re stuck with mackerel. Any meaty, oily fish will work well. If you have two kittens, the skins will find a good home if you chop them up and stick them in a bowl. Put the flesh in the food processor with the water and blend until you’re left with a pale puree.

Add the coconut milk, the sugar, the eggs, coriander and salt. Pulse until everything is combined, then add the sambal you made earlier and process until you end up with a thick paste.

Cut rectangles of foil and greasproof paper measuring 15 x 30 cm. Put a piece of greaseproof on top of a piece of foil and lay three dessertspoons of paste down the centre. Fold everything up carefully. It’s not meant to be airtight; the packets are there to help your otak-otak both steam and grill, so you’ll have a lightly steamed mousse with a golden, grilled bottom.

Put your little packets in a frying pan without any oil over a medium flame, and toast them for between ten and fifteen minutes, until the mousse is wobbly but firm. Serve with rice and imagine you’re sitting in a Malaysian restaurant with zinc-top tables and dripping rainforest outside.

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